The Cool Kids Table

As I approached the breakfast table in my health club's Grill, my heart started to beat faster. It wasn't from my 30-minute workout -- that had been finished one hour before and was followed by an additional 30 calming minutes in the women's dressing area.

It was this: the round table, that typically fits six to eight women and an occasional man, appeared to be fully occupied. Was there no room for me at the place I've come to call, The Cool Kids Table (TCKT).

"Um," I said, as tentative as a senior citizen boarding a packed CTA bus.

"Come on, Elaine," one of the women said, gesturing a sweeping arm wrapping me into the group. "We'll make room."

And with that, as if in a game of Musical Chairs, each person at TCKT shifted to the right until a space opened to fit in an empty chair.

Since rejoining the East Bank Club in June of this year after a three-year absence, I've come to regard my breakfast here as vital to my health as my five-day-a-week swimming.

Because I live alone, and work out of my home, I spend a good part of the day not talking -- save for phone calls and the occasional, "What did I come into this room for?"

My fellow breakfasters are an interesting, intelligent bunch: judges, lawyers, real estate brokers, consultants, therapists, and of course, me. Our discussions cover politics -- both local and national -- books, movies, television, children, grandchildren, and our wellbeing (but no kvetching).

By the time I leave the table -- in about an hour -- I feel energized, as if I had been a jalopy suddenly brought to life with a full tank and carwash. And gratefully, that sense can last most of the day.

These mornings got me to thinking about other regularly shared meals; so let's reverse the calendar pages to the years 1952-56 at Roosevelt High School in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.

Unfortunately, my memory that far back is sporadic, like an old movie clip that fades in and out.

But my longtime friend, Ruth, can bring those years up in sharp focus. "Did we eat in the lunchroom in high school?" I asked in a phone call. (I had explained my mission of writing this essay and my habit of traveling back in time to plump up the stories.)

"We never went to the lunchroom," Ruth said. She was indignant, sounding as if I had suggested we ate out of trash bins. "That was for the nerds. We went to Shers [neither of us can remember the exact spelling], that diner in the basement a few blocks from school."

And with that, everything came back: the cigarette smoke from showing-off seniors; the smell of tamales, hot dogs, and burgers; and the sounds of Johnny Ray, Frankie Lane, and Teresa Wright on the juke box.

"We sat with the guys, didn't we?" I asked, seeing the boys in their youth. There was tall Mike, a basketball player who I had a crush on; Richie, the comedian of the group (I had a crush on him, too); Erwin, my junior prom date; and Jack, my senior prom date.

"The bums, the ones with the ducktail haircuts, went somewhere else," Ruth said, again displaying a recall as explicit as a Wikipedia entry. "We were the good Jewish kids, the popular crowd."

Popular? I didn't remember feeling popular. Although both Ruth and I were in the favored girls club -- the Alpha Valedas -- I always felt as if I came from the wrong side of the tracks. While most of the members were fancy free in single family homes, and had a bureau full of cashmere sweaters, I worked at an after school job, lived in an aging apartment building, and wore bargain basement fakes.

Maybe it was due to my brother Ron -- three years older than I and a member of the vaulted Jovens boys club -- that I was sort of a legacy admission. Or, because I was short, funny, and okay, cute.

Evidently, my feeling of not being up-to-par for the Alpha Valedas, didn't transfer to Shers, because I felt quite at home being one of the guys.

Ah, high school.

Ah, East Bank Club. On that recent morning when I first felt I would be excluded from the gathering, and then the entire group shifted to fit me in, I puffed up as if I were a celebrity.

And in a way I am: I sit at the Cool Kids Table.


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